September 8, 2006

E-mail Health Alerts: Fact or Fiction?

A member of a listserv I subscribe to recently passed along a recipe for Nieman Marcus chocolate chip cookies, believing that the original sender paid $250 for the inside scoop on how to make gooey chocolate deliciousness. Another member pointed out that this was, in fact, an urban legend. The recipe is openly available on the Neiman Marcus website (go; you’ll thank me later).

E-mail hoaxes are quite common, and some aren’t as harmless as the Secret Cookie Recipe.

Writing in Women’s eNews, Molly M. Ginty looks at the truth factor of several popular health alerts that have been making the rounds. Some bogus warnings have circulated for years.

“Women are more likely than men to forward health warnings and other e-mails they receive as a way of strengthening their social network,” Susannah Fox, Pew’s associate director, tells Women’s eNews. “As caregivers, they are also more likely to seek out health information for people they hope to help.”

For the record, if you’ve been disturbed by e-mails proclaiming tampons may cause cancer, sunscreen causes blindness, bananas are filled with flesh-eating bacteria, and perfumed samples received via mail are deadly poisonous, you can rest easy.

But a popular e-mail about inflammatory breast cancer does contain factually correct information. The e-mail includes links to the original news source – KOMO4 News in Seattle. (The news station has even reported on the widespread attention the story received.)

So how do you know when an e-mail is a hoax? Ginty points to useful fact-checking websites like TruthOrFiction.com and Snopes.com. Another good site is About.com’s health/medical page on current netlore.

And don’t forget to check out “How to Evaluate Health Information on the Internet,” from Our Bodies, Ourselves. It’s available online here.


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